Parks and Recreation Manager Harry Johnson opened the discussion at the August 22, 2017 Board of County Commissioners meeting by introducing Guest Services Management, LLC. Doing business as Boating in Florida, Michael Aghajanian and Matt Smith appeared before the board to discuss their business model and plans for improvements to kayak-renting practices on the Weeki Wachee River. On Aug. 22 the company sought Board approval for a “concession license agreement” to operate at Rogers Park. The company launches kayakers from Weeki Wachee State Park and would like to pick them up at Rogers Park.
Guest Services Management, LLC has been in business for 100 years. Founded in 1917, the first CEO was Ulysses S. Grant, and the focus of the company then was feeding the troops during World War I, as well as providing recreational opportunities.
Since their opening in December 2016, Boating in Florida has already put in some measures to help manage the waterway better. The first one being the state-imposed 70 boats-per-hour which went into effect over the summer, reduces launches by 20-30%. Aghajanian stated that they’ve noticed a more consistent flow of boats down the river since this was implemented.
They’re also walking customers to the river, providing an interpretive tour, which is a 3-5 minute speech with visual aids along the way, educating kayakers on local flora and how to respond to manatees.
Cutting rental times to four hours, Boating in Florida is encouraging customers to paddle consistently and exit the river in a timely fashion. Aghajanian said they’re trying to change the behavior of kayakers who bring large coolers and “making a day of it,” and will be enforcing smaller cooler sizes next year.
Commissioner John Allocco asked if regulations exist currently that prohibit disposable items such as plastic bottles and food wrappers. Aghajanian stated that some rivers in the state prohibit such items, allowing for only reusable containers to be brought. This is currently being investigated as a solution to the problem of litter on the Weeki Wachee.
Boating in Florida’s boats and life jackets are clearly marked and numbered for easy identification of their renters. All of Boating in Florida’s staff are CPR and First Aid certified.
Aghajanian said that they’ve made changes based on observations of other and former rental operations in the area. Instead of stacking piles of kayaks at Rogers Park, Boating in Florida purchased a covered trailer and a school bus to transport boaters and equipment back to their starting point. They’re also active in monthly river cleanup efforts, and attending local meetings. “We’re very open to being part of the discussion to help manage the resource better.”
Boating in Florida’s lease contract stipulates an 11% revenue share with the State of Florida. 2% of the revenue share is earmarked for capital improvement fund, which is used for improvement of the park.
Returning to the subject of alternative exit points to avoid all boats exiting at Roger’s Park, Boating in Florida identified the Weeki Wachee Christian Camp, roughly one mile upriver from Roger’s Park as a possibility. A second early-exit point is still being determined, possibly one mile downriver from the springhead.
Residents once again addressed the board with comments and concerns. Previously not discussed is the fact that numerous vessels originate from rental homes in the area, which can account for many kayaks not commercially owned. County Attorney Garth Coller suggested investigation into whether the practice could be actionable by Code Enforcement.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes reminded all in attendance with continued concerns of litter and overcrowding, “We are limited on what we can do and we’re working very hard to do what we can.”
Commissioner Steve Champion moved to modify the terms of Guest Services, LLC’s lease contract to a period of no more than one year, and seconded by Commissioner John Allocco. Motioned carried unanimously. The contract will be reviewed at the end of the contract period. The estimated revenue for the yearly contract will be $30,000.